Using Machines to Fight the Crowned Virus

May 20, 2020

Sample Prototype of the robot technically designed by Mr. Pankaj Japrel from Kantibir, Mr. Anil Singh and Mr. Prithvi Chaudhary from The Robonauts, and Mr. Richan Joshi from Oztec. Photo Credit: Robotics Association of Nepal

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the ongoing global fight to stave off COVID-19, has spurred all manners of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to help us make the best of this situation. By this, I definitely do not mean there was anything less before the pandemic. In case of the robotic industry, however, the exploration of novel solutions has dramatically increased. In Nepal, the interest and zeal towards machine learning and promoting robots has shot up significantly, compared to what was before the pandemic.

The pandemic is affecting 95% of the globe (at least 187 countries and territories). Nepal is not immune. Its first case was reported on 23 January, and it took two months for another case to surface. But as of 19 May, Nepal’s Covid-19 tally crosses 400 with two fatalities.. Physical distancing protocols are being followed here in Nepal, as in the rest of the world, more so since the country-wide lockdown that started on 24 March (and currently extended until 2 June 2020). There is good evidence that this measure has helped prevent an exponential spread of the infection. However, physical  distancing is a luxury for some essential workers. For example, health workers who are in the frontline are more affected as they have been treating and caring infected patients 24/7.

Accelerator Lab in Nepal explored solutions to minimize physical contact between health workers and patients. And  we looked into how machines can minimize the exposure of care workers providing a safer work environment under the circumstances. For example, how can we use machines to de-risk some critical care tasks, such as delivering food and medicines to the patients.

While searching for emerging local innovations, we got a chance to meet with enthusiastic technopreneurs and engineers who have been looking at utilizing robots in response to COVID-19. We have been discussing  with the Robotics Association of Nepal, who are testing and experimenting remotely operated robots with advanced sensor capabilities.

Why Robots?

Frontline health workers are at high risk due to maximum exposure to the COVID-19 patients. According to Ms. Sabitri Ghale (name changed on request), one of the nurses at Bir Hospital, the current biggest concerns of health workers is ensuring their own safety. “My passion of serving people has brought me here. But right now, to be honest, I am scared to go to work because we are at the highest risk,” she says. In order to motivate and boost the confidence of the health workers like Ms. Ghale, we are exploring whether we could use remotely operated robots for non-clinical tasks like delivering medicines, food and general information to the patients in isolation wards.

How does it work?

The nurses and other health practitioners will be trained on operating the robot through a remote-control system. The robot can carry 30-50 kgs of materials at a time and can operate within an approximate range of 300 meters. It can run for two hours if operated continuously and for a whole day if operated intermittently. A tablet screen will allow patients to interact with the health workers as and when required.

Has it been tested?

The first prototype of the robot, named SISTER, has successfully been tested by Robotics Association of Nepal. The testing was done at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital and Armed Police Force Hospital of Kathmandu Valley and at Hetauda Hospital of Bagmati Province. With positive feedback from the Ministry of Health and Population and the local government of Bagmati Province, the Accelerator Lab Nepal along with ROBOTICS Association Nepal will be initiating its first experiment using robots by early June 2020.

What is the added value for us?

I think this crisis provides an opportunity around robots and machines to deliver critical services. Apart from that, few of the other added values are:

  1. We can promote emerging technopreneurs who are looking for opportunities to engage.
  2. There is a possibility of engaging enthusiastic youths in the production, who have the possibility to contribute to innovative ideas.
  3. With the growing interest of both the government and private hospitals on utilizing robots for delivery services, there is a high possibility of enhancing Public-Private Partnership involving government, private sectors and people.
  4. Since the product will be produced locally, this would be more cost-effective and quicker on delivery.
  5. We are supporting front-line medical workers who are mostly at risk during this vulnerable time by providing alternative ways to minimize the risk while delivering essential services to the patients.
  6. In a nutshell, we will be promoting “home-grown” ideas and “locally-sourced” solution, which is a fundamental principle of the UNDP Accelerator Lab.

UNDP Accelerator Lab in Nepal is working closely with development partners, the private sectors and grassroot innovators as a “vehicle” to test innovative solutions around unplanned urbanization and unemployment, It is on a quest of to invest technical expertise on these two frontier issues in order to map, and explore a portfolio of experiments to foresee more possibilities.